As we cross over into the 2020s, retrospectives on the past decade of K-pop are abound. Year on year, the shifts in the K-pop scene may not be apparent, but looking back on a block of ten years, so much has changed. The way fans consume music shifted from CDs and illegally downloading zips—in 2010, the iTunes store was nowhere as well-stocked with K-pop as Apple Music is today, nor was Spotify available internationally—to streaming.
K-pop also cycled through a ton of genres: from electro-pop, dance pop, and dance ballads, to hip-hop and trap, and to future bass and tropical house. The music and styling went from emo and dramatic to mellow and moody, while breaking news went in the opposite direction, becoming darker, more complex, and more shocking than before. The Seoulbeats Decade in Review series delves deeper into some of these changes, balancing a critical lens with the writers’ perspectives as fans.
We first dipped our toes into a decade retrospective with a look at the Korean hip-hop scene. For the second Decade in Review feature, because combing through hundreds of releases for a top five list for our End-of-Year Reviews isn’t quite challenging enough, the Seoulbeats editors found a new form of self-torment: picking one song per year from 2010–2019 to talk about.
Our team of six—many of whom have been K-pop fans since the mid- and late-2000s—put our K-pop grandma heads together to look at the releases that stood out each year and defined the landscape, shaping it towards the scene we see today.
Editor’s Note: This is the second part of the review; for song picks from 2010-2014, please check out part one here: seoulbeats.com/2020/01/sb-decade-in-review-a-song-a-year-2010-2014/
Editors’ Picks: BTS – “I Need U”, “Run” / Day6 – “Congratulations” / Shinee – “View”
Karen: 2015 can be hailed as a great year that saw BTS’ HYYH being released, an album that would propel the group to great fame. But hold your horses, because the year also saw many important debuts of groups like Twice, Seventeen, GFriend, and my personal favourite, Day6. The band’s debut song “Congratulations” is still unforgettable, no matter how many albums they’ve released.
Even as they continue to experiment with various music genres, “Congratulations” encapsulates the spirit of Day6 and is almost a trademark song of theirs. It’s fascinating to see how something like a debut song can already articulate the band’s music style so well.
Chelsea: I loved Day6’s The Day album, though “Congratulations” was probably one of my least favorite tracks on it. If B-sides counted, I would vote for Day6’s “Blood” because it was my song of spring.
Realistically though, I completely agree that HYYH was one of the most significant developments of 2015. So much so, that when choosing a song of the year for 2015, it’s hard to choose which BTS song wins.
Aastha: Oh, for sure. If you look across the HYYH albums, there are multiple noteworthy tracks. But just between the titles, “I Need U” and “Run”, the latter is my pick. Despite the uptempo beats of the song, it manages to evoke feelings of nostalgia and wistfulness. And what an impact it made on BTS’ videography and discography. While “I Need U” could stand alone as a title, “Run” was the starting point of a narrative that set BTS’ creative path for the next few years.
Both “I Need U” and “Run” were such turning points in their sound, and perhaps without these electro-pop titles we would have never gotten “Blood Sweat & Tears”. It says something about audience reception when expanding their sound from hip-hop in preceding albums to pop in HYYH shot them to fame.
Qing: As Karen noted, this was another year of great debuts: Seventeen brought their youthful brand of funk pop and hip-hop in “Adore U”, and GFriend’s “Glass Bead” delivered a shot of nostalgia for those familiar with SNSD’s debut, “Into the New World”.
Yet my choice is unequivocally BTS’ “I Need U”. From the opening harmonisations and synths that pelt down like droplets of water from a leaking faucet, it evoked a sense of space like I had never heard any other K-pop song do before. The soundscape the production created was empty, desolate, young, vulnerable; it changed what I noticed about and came to expect from song production. Listening to it didn’t just feel like being absorbed into a story the way “Error” did; I was transported into something even more personal: the diary entries, the inner world, of someone too young to be this disillusioned.
Janine: Choosing my favourite BTS song from this era is too difficult, so I refuse to do it. HYYH is my favourite era and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Album tracks like “Autumn Leaves”, “Hold Me Tight”, and “Outro: House of Cards” had me playing BTS when I was in a late night funk, while the uptempo hits were still there to remind me why I was a fan in the first place.
Because the BTS question is too difficult to answer, I will pick a song I slip on in the summer every year since it was released: “View” by Shinee. Odd was an album that didn’t only show consistency from a very solid, musical group — it remarkably showed there was even more to expect from Shinee. Chill tropical EDM with melodies and harmonies as sweet as summer soft-serve, “View” is the song you didn’t know you needed at your pool party. For sheer longevity, it gets my vote.
Editors’ Picks: Seventeen – “Very Nice” / Twice – “TT”
Karen: It’s not fair that we have to only pick one song for 2016, and it gave me a huge headache, because this year was truly too great to be true. Lee Hi’s “Breathe” and Got7’s “Hard Carry” came along with the debuts of Black Pink, NCT 127, NCT Dream and much more. The groups that have risen to popularity in recent years mostly debuted in 2015 or 2016, and the songs released during this period of time represent their early days of hardwork as they build their own identity.
However, my true troubles came with choosing between Seventeen’s “Boom Boom” and “Very Nice”, I went with “Very Nice” because of how it encapsulates Seventeen’s image of youthfulness and spontaneity, a concept that they carry into future releases.
Seventeen might have many more amazing performances to come, but “Very Nice” remains a great hit even now for its bursts of energy, conveyed musically in the chorus that explodes with each line of “very nice”. “Very Nice” can probably be termed as the group’s trademark song, one that has found its way from the K-pop sphere to greater exposure. It is still often heard on variety shows or sports events in Korea, with the catchy phrase “very nice” ringing in good cheer.
Qing: 2016 was the year that K-pop started bailing out of proper choruses, replacing them with instrumental breakdowns and a chanted catchphrase. But “Very Nice” reminded me so much of early K-pop’s straightforward charm that I forgave its lack of a melody in the chorus.
Much as I love my dramatic dance ballads, and the tangle of angst they offer up, there’s something undeniably appealing about a simple song that’s so pure and emotionally accessible in its joy and excitement. But it also switches up the rhythm and vocal arrangements just enough to keep the listener on the edge of the seat, much like how the persona of the song must be feeling.
Janine: 2015 and 2016 are tortuous to choose a favourite! There were so many giant hits that have made a huge impact personally and to the landscape of K-pop. We began to witness the decline of choruses, but my favourite from the year has a fairly standard three-chorus structure. In fact, I would call it a pretty generic composition, but no song can touch Twice’s triumphant “TT” on sheer earworm appeal.
Is it a little cringey? Absolutely. Does it matter? Absolutely not. “TT”-sus (as it is affectionately known in my house) has joined “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on my Christmas playlist and “Monster Mash” on my Halloween playlist because it is both deranged and euphoric. The more you listen to the artificial hand claps, ascending and descending whoos in the background, and the weird jukebox noises, the more you are drawn into the demented funhouse of Twice’s universe.
Editors’ Picks: Seventeen – “Clap”, “Don’t Wanna Cry” / Taemin – “Move”
Qing: 2016 was a great year musically, but in 2017 I developed a love-hate relationship with K-pop. Following the new waves K-pop—particularly BTS—was making in the American market, Western EDM trends dug their claws in deep. While this phenomenon injected fresh sounds into the increasingly saturated landscape, it also robbed K-pop of so much that makes it special.
No track embodies my ambivalence better than Seventeen’s “Don’t Wanna Cry”. It features a sleek, minimalistic soundscape that we don’t hear in the earlier part of the decade; it points to the production possibilities that attention towards Western EDM trends opened up. The buildup of bubbling synths, drums, and plaintive vocals is cinematic. It’s so damn near perfect, but the oh-so-trendy, hopelessly generic future bass synths and the lack of a melody in the chorus keeps it from being so.
Karen: I’m going to first thank Qing for picking “Don’t Wanna Cry”, just so I can be free from any dilemma and pick Seventeen’s “Clap”. The song hooked me in from the start, with the guitar riffs and progression into a mixture of funk and rock. It screams charisma, but what’s even more impressive is how it manages to suppress the potentially overpowering electric guitars by using it sparingly. I love how the music goes bare right before the bridge, and the choreography snaps into place with the bass beats.
“Clap” brilliantly uses the diversity in vocal and rap deliveries to propel the song forward, with the instrumental backdrop only as a complement, spotlighting the group’s strength in numbers as they echo the chorus. As with many of their songs, the energy of “Clap” makes it perfect for live performances, showcasing the wholesomeness of Seventeen’s talents in marrying skillful vocals with stunning stage presence.
Janine: 2017 was a turning point in my own K-pop journey, because I found myself seeking out deep cuts from groups I hadn’t listened to before and crucially, I began listening to solo projects. I’ve always been a group fan but this year is when I started to give my attention to musicians like Sunmi, Ha:tfelt, Chungha, and IU (yes, I know I am a monster). The rise of EDM and future bass was widespread enough to force me to widen my scope of attention, and I ended up finding some of my favourite artists today.
Taemin captivated the world with “Move”. The performance elements are rightfully remarked upon but for me, the album is just as important. Taemin put moody dance synth pop like “Move” and “Thirsty” next to big R&B ballads like “Love” and crying in the club joints like “Stone Heart”. Move gave me life and reminded me good music exists every year, you just have to listen for it.
Editors’ Picks: N.Flying – “Hot Potato” / Red Velvet – “Peek-a-Boo” / Shinee – “Countless” / The Rose – “She’s in the Rain”
Aastha: I had the hardest time choosing between The Rose’s “B.A.B.Y” and Red Velvet’s “Peek-a-Boo”, but I’d have to say that “Peek-a-Boo” reigns. With “Peek-a-Boo” and Perfect Velvet, SM showed how a well-curated concepts and calculated planning can do wonders and justice to girl groups.
Previously, Red Velvet had been known for their “red” concepts, with “Ice Cream Cake” and “Dumb Dumb”. SM gave Red Velvet so much depth and dimensionality by fleshing out not just the cute and bubbly “red” side but also the mature and classy “velvet” side. It also helps that “Peek-a-Boo” by itself is a notably catchy song; the combination of staccato percussion beats, a smooth synthline and an addictive hook had little room for failure.
Qing: Gosh, what happened to 2018 K-pop? There were solid releases, but I struggled to find a stand-out. The trends that I hated—the lack of proper choruses—continued dominating songs. Maybe that’s what sent me running into the arms of N.Flying’s “Hot Potato” (and I know I’m going out on a limb here).
It’s silly but confident, packed to the brim with soaring melodies and the fun and energy that’s missing from so many title tracks released in 2018. Having choruses you could sing along to used to be such an essential ingredient in any K-pop title track, it’s hard to imagine we’ve arrived at a point where songs like “Hot Potato” have become a rarity.
Karen: Aastha, I’ll save you from your hesitations by pushing The Rose’s “She’s in the Rain” into the list. The band certainly deserves more attention for their musical talent. The Rose vibes with a sound similar to British pop rock at times, which might not always appeal to a Korean audience. As opposed to their debut track “Sorry”, “She’s in the Rain” was the song that I kept returning to for its lyrics and magical ability to conjure an atmosphere of melancholy.
It’s not an especially complex song, but the slow progression from the acoustic guitar strumming into a more layered chorus pushes the song to its emotional climax. I was especially hooked on the phrase, “It’s better to be held than holding on,” which Woosung delivers like a stab right in the feels.
Janine: 2018 was a very emotional year in music as Jonghyun’s final album Poet | Artist was released; this was followed by the Story of Light series by Shinee which explored the process of grieving in the public eye. It was very difficult for me to think of anything that affected me as much as the three-EP project. The Story of Light was incredibly heartbreaking if you knew the backstory and enchanting even if you didn’t. Shinee cemented their place as one of my all-time favourite groups by remaining to create consistently excellent electronic music like “Countless”, even when processing the most tragic circumstances.
My affair with soloists began to seriously threaten my loyalty to groups this year too. Join us, Qing — we have Eric Nam! And choruses!
Editors’ Picks: Dreamcatcher – “And There Was No One Left” / Ha Sungwoon ft. Park Jihoon – “Don’t Forget” / Stray Kids – “Miroh”
Pat: I have nothing to say except give me back my choruses, you cowards.
Karen: Well, it has been a pretty bland year — which makes it perfect to spotlight the underdogs and rising stars. I caught Ha Sungwoon performing at KAMP Singapore, and I became a fan. “Don’t Forget” was the song that stood out to me, and only after the concert did I realise he sang it with fellow Wanna One member, Park Jihoon. It balances melodic rhythm with whimsical lyrics. Having two male vocals made for good synergy, making it more dynamic as opposed to his other songs. Honestly, this song made me realise that I had no idea where these Wanna One members went, though they have so much talent, and made me wonder why they aren’t being spotlighted more.
Qing: And to think I complained about 2018! I can’t decide if I want to give 2019 K-pop a consolatory hug for being so splendidly unspectacular, or grab it by the neck and throttle it for letting this much talent in producing and performing go to waste. But like Karen, I found my ears perking up at what the young ones have to offer. It’s fitting that at this juncture that feels so stagnant with unexciting trends, my pick goes to a group that reminds me so much of B.A.P and their rookie rebellion against dominant styles.
K-pop has flirted with trance before (most notably A.C.E with “Callin’” and “Cactus”, and Monsta X with “Be Quiet” and some b-sides). But Stray Kids (also a revelation from KAMP Singapore) took psychedelic trance’s hand firmly and brought it on a date. Not only was the date that is “Miroh” a smashing success, it also made me see the prospect of this becoming a serious relationship for the genre and K-pop at large.
As the marimba-like synths plink on, the vocals keep soaring higher and higher, culminating in, yes, an instrumental breakdown punctuated by roars and eagle shrieks tying in with the jungle metaphor of the lyrics. But this is quickly followed by an actual melody, and as a result, the energy level never flags or plateaus, the way it does in so many recent songs.
Writing this post, I’ve been reflecting on just what about recent K-pop’s lack of proper choruses bothers me. It goes beyond personal music preference. It’s that the best K-pop songs have always felt like a complete experience that commands the listener’s full attention. They’re not throwaway tracks that work as ambient background music for a store. Taking amazing buildups and proper choruses away felt like K-pop lost what made it most powerful. So moving into the 2020s, I have just one wish as a fan: I want my kick-ass choruses back.
Janine: Y’all, I’m about to beat my well-worn drum: good music exists in every year, we just have to find it. 2019 brought us some really strong girl group efforts like No. 1 from CLC, XX from Loona, White Wind from Mamamoo, and my personal favourite The End of Nightmare from Dreamcatcher.
Weak or non-existent choruses aside, I am getting the theatricality, concepts, and ambitious production style choices I need from Dreamcatcher. The babymetal concept has been expanded to include other influences and the group is better for it. “And There Was No One Left” is a departure from the rock influences of the rest of their discography, with the chorus being replaced by a catchy instrumental hook. Everything we hate! But the bassline is incredible and the members deliver sultry vocals to let you know, no genre is outside of their abilities.
I can only urge K-pop listeners to push past the overwhelming fatigue you will inevitably feel when first listening to the most popular songs and allow artists to surprise you. I had stopped keeping up with Got7 for about two years before I heard the tight, incredibly sexy EP released by Yugeom and JB’s subunit Jus2. The EP prompted me to listen to “You Calling My Name” and suddenly, I’m reinvested in Got7’s journey.
To everyone who is languishing without decent hooks — it takes about three years for the circle to come around. 2020 could be the turn.